Sriram Singh – The Pace Setter

The performance of Sriram Singh at the Montreal Olympics in 1976 has such an aura that it is remembered fondly even 40 years later. On the face of it finishing seventh out of eight in an Olympic final may not merit that much attention. But the highly competitive field and the manner in which Sriram ran the race gives it a special place among the Indian performances at the Games.

To reach the 800 metres final Sriram had to run two heats on consecutive days. He ran the first heat in one minute, 45.8 seconds a national record to finish second to Rick Wohlhuter. The following day in the semifinal he clocked one minute, 46.2 seconds to qualify for the final which was held 24 hours later making it a total of three races in about 50 hours.

The line-up for the event was to mark it as arguably the greatest Olympics 800 metres of all time. Wohlhuter of the US was the favourite having recorded the fastest time of the year (one minute, 44.8 seconds). The second best time was notched up by Cuba’s Alberto Juantorena. But although he was the favourite for the 400 metres (in which he would win the gold three days later) he had little experience in the longer distance.

Belgium’s Ivo Van Damme and Britain’s Steve Ovett – who was to win gold four years later at Mosacow – were the other big names in the final. Missing though was Kenya’s Mike Bolt who had to pull out of the Games because of the boycott by African nations. At the gun Sriram was out of the blocks like a flash.

He scorched the track and the rest of the field struggled to keep up with the electric pace set by him. In fact one recalls the words of the commentator who said ``the Indian runs the 800 metres like the 100.’’ Sriram led at the end of the first lap and as he recalled ``It was the fastest lap I had ever run but I had no option. If I had run slower faster runners could have beaten me in the straight.’’ Never a good starter Juantorena finally caught up with Sriram nearing the 550 metre mark. At the halfway mark Sriram had clocked 50.85 to Juantorena’s 50.90.

At the bell the two were almost neck and neck but the Cuban then took the lead and was unchallenged after that. Wohlhuter and van Damme simply could not match his finishing kick as he completed the last 100 metres in a sizzling 11.9. No wonder he was nicknamed `El Caballo’ (The Horse).

Juantorena’s 1 minute, 43.50 was a world record erasing the earlier mark of one minute, 43.70. Van Damme was second in one minute, 43.86 while Wohlhuter got the bronze in one minute, 44.12. Sriram finished seventh with Willi Wulbeck, Ovett and Luciano Susanj all finishing ahead of him. But his timing of one minute, 45.77 was the Asian record till 1994. Years later Sriram looked back on the race with a mix of pride and regret. ``It would be an understatement to say I was anxious on the eve of the final.

I was drained after going all out in the heat followed by the semifinal. The final had a quality field and the mere thought of going hard over another race just a day after the semifinal was really bothering me. I kept on thinking about those two laps around the track. Expectations were high after my performances in the qualifying rounds and the thought of winning a medal began to haunt me.

The fire to win a medal and the rush of adrenaline made me surge ahead at a fast pace for the first lap. Even when the Cuban crossed me I still had a bright chance of winning a medal. But then three more runners crossed me on the backstretch. That was the time I slackened my pace which was a big blunder. But I made up ground on the homestretch to finish seventh. Indeed at the end of the race Juantorena came up to me and said that without my effort he would not have been able to break the record.

That was my only consolation,’’ To understand Sriram’s achievements one must also highlight the role played by his coach Ilyas Babar whom the athlete always reverentially called ``Guruji’’. Indeed Sriram always insisted that it was his presence at Montreal that inspired him to world class heights. Babar was not part of the official contingent but he borrowed the money that enabled him to fly to Montreal to be by his greatest student’s side in his hour of glory. Sriram who hailed from Rajasthan started his athletics career in 19 68 and was initially a sprinter.

It was Babar who suggested he try the 400 and then the 800. He was to win the national title at this distance from 1969 to 1980. Sriram won a silver in the 800 metres at the 1970 Bangkok Asian Games. Four years later at Teheran it was gold in an Asian record time of one minute, 47.6. In 1975 at the Asian track and field championship at Seoul he claimed the gold in the 400, 800 and 4 X 400 relay.

And it was gold again in the 800 in the 1978 Bangkok Asian Games. It was after his Seoul performance that Babar was convinced Sriram was cut out for bigger things. ``I will train you for the Olympics and if you work hard you will not only make the final you will also win a medal for India.’’ Together they set out to achieve that dream. Despite an attack of asthma Sriram made it to Montreal after coming under the qualifying time of one minute, 46 seconds. The rest of course is history.